May 5, 2004

Thom Gunn 1929-2004

Poet. Teacher. Mentor.

My Sad Captains
by Thom Gunn

One by one they appear in
the darkness: a few friends, and
a few with historical
names. How late they start to shine!
but before they fade they stand
perfectly embodied, all

the past lapping them like a
cloak of chaos. They were men
who, I thought, lived only to
renew the wasteful force they
spent with each hot convulsion.
They remind me, distant now.

True, they are not at rest yet,
but now they are indeed
apart, winnowed from failures,
they withdraw to an orbit
and turn with disinterested
hard energy, like the stars.

Thom (Thomson) William Gunn, poet, born August 29 1929; died April 25 2004....


No. Wait. Do not go.

A bracket of dates and life moves forward. If we were like the beasts that we keep that would be the whole of it. But we move forward carrying the past with us. It is true that age and the ever spiraling cascade of experience forces us to discard large files of memory along the way, but if we are wise we keep those memories that sustain us and let the rest pass.

It is 1967 and Iím living with six other crazed young artists and hipsters in The Green House off Telegraph south of UC Berkeley. The Green House was not a special place for the time. It was, in that time and in that place, ordinary. The most ordinary place in the world. If it was neither real nor natural, it was fraught with a strange excitement, fecund with endless possibility. It was built of a metaphysic so loose that the most absurd accident could happen and it would only be a part of the Grand Design. It was a place where revelation and prophecy were daily events, the Second Coming scheduled for tomorrow after lunch, magic considered merely another, older branch of science, poetry an acceptable mode of speech, and caricature a widely appreciated attitude. As far as we know Rasputin, William Blake, St. Teresa, and Walt Whitman had never lived in The Green House, but they would have been welcome if they had wandered in.

Because thereís a war on, Iím trying to stay in school. But because thereís a war on Iím trying to leave school. Iím also trying to become a poet for reasons that are now obscure other than it seemed like ďa good idea at the time.Ē Off the kitchen in The Green House is a small mud room with a screened window. Nasturtium and morning glories have twined across the screen and late into the night I sit scribbling and typing one attempt at poetry after another only to abandon most of them at first light. Dawn always reveals a small pool of crumpled sheets filled with errors, false starts, bad endings, failed metaphors, forced similies -- all the detritus of trying to learn to use words.

It had not been my habit to throw anything away the previous year. Everything I wrote seemed to my young mind to be touched with light. Now I knew it had been garbage and had destroyed most of it. How did I know that? Because I had been fortunate enough to find myself in a poetry composition class taught by Thom Gunn.

How many teachers do we have during our formal schooling? Two or three dozen? Fifty at most. How many do we remember? I remember three. A science teacher and a drama teacher in high school, and Gunn. I donít remember Gunn because of how or what he taught, although that was part of it, I remember him because of who he was.

I remember the craggy, pitted face easily moved to laughter and a sensibility moved to kind despair when he was forced to experience a particularly bad line. I remember that the class was formed of about 12 students and that on any given day at least ten were baked to a crisp. But that didnít mean Gunn didnít get our attention. How could he not? He was not only an elegant poet, an inheritor of the Tennysonian tradition in English poetry, but he was an elegant man.

He commuted in from his other life in San Francisco on a powerful motorcycle in leather and Levis. Then, before taking up his duties as a teacher, heíd change into what had to be bespoke English Suits and cowboy boots. It was a look that the students in his class mired in the hippy-regalia of the time could not hope to emulate. But it was a look that spoke of refinement and manliness at the same time. It was not too much to say that we worshipped the man.

Unlike other ďestablished poetsĒ Iíve run into here or there over the years, the hours spent in Gunnís class were never about himself or his work. We were always asking him to read to us from his work, but he never did. What we were there to discuss, he always reminded us, was our work and the work it obviously needed.

And work we did. Iíve never pushed so hard on the craft as I did during that semester. Because that was what Gunn was about, the craft. Not your feelings or your petty psychosis, not the confessional spew so popular at the time. Gunn had little patience for that even though he was invariably kind about pointing it out. What Gunn was interested in teaching was the one thing he knew he could teach: the craft, the rhetorical shape and the internal beat, the way in which you could put words together to get a specific emotion back from the reader; the painting techniques of poetry; how to draw from life with words.

Most of the time, you failed at the craft since youíd been taught that craft was a foolish tool and that emotions were all that mattered. But slowly, with his remarks in class and his reactions to the work you submitted, you came to understand that you were actually improving. In hopes of improving more, you bought his books and internalized his poems. I have all his books now, the oldest of which I bought in 1967. Iíve read through and around in them many times and they never fail to enhance and expand my life.

Gunn was kind and unsparing with his criticism, but he held back his praise. Somewhere I still have a sheet of paper with his polished handwriting telling me how vivid and effective he thought it was. I kept it pinned in front of wherever I was writing for years. It strikes me now that Iíd really like to find it.

In time the class ended, summer came on, I left the University and fled to Europe. Several years passed and I was working in an office south of Market Street in San Francisco. I was walking back to the job when, waiting for a light, a motorcycle pulled up next to me at the curb. Black motorcycle. Helmeted rider. Bespoke English three-piece suit. Cowboy boots.

Recognizing me he lifted his visor and smiled that smile that made the day brighter. Held out his hand and we shook. The light changed and I said, just to be clever in the way that young men are, ďMan, you gotta go,Ē a phrase that opens one of his motorcyclist poems, "On the Move." He laughed, nodded, hit the throttle and faded away down the long boulevard.

I never saw him again, but like all teachers and mentors that have touched our lives, heís never really been absent. More than once over the years, I wanted to seek him out if only to thank him for what heíd added to my life. That always seemed beside the point. Now, to my regret, it is too late. Still, when I think of him or read his work as I will until my time arrives, Iíll always carry the memory of those classes and the long nights working amid the growing pile of crumpled paper on the floor in The Green House. In the end, thatís what the great teachers and poets leave us, the memories that live, the memories we choose to carry all our lives.

Posted by Vanderleun at May 5, 2004 9:24 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Interesting. Thanks for sharing. I've never heard of him, (but there's lots I've never heard of.)

I will check out his poetry now, though.

Posted by: eric at May 5, 2004 10:37 AM

Great stuff.

Posted by: wretchard at May 5, 2004 5:39 PM

"The light changed ... 'you gotta go.'" Thank you.

Posted by: Richard Meixner at May 6, 2004 4:57 AM

About 9 years ago, I was lucky enough to be admitted to Gunn's poetry writing class. I will always regret I let my insecurities fuel writer's block because I could have learned so much more.
My specific memories are hazy, but I know your rememberance of him is absolutely correct. He was there to teach his craft and nothing less. Like you, I'd always wanted to
talk just one more time with him. Thanks for your post.

Posted by: montyburnz at May 7, 2004 6:14 PM

I've only known him through his poetry, one of my favourite British poets. It is so sad now, to know he's gone.

"One joins the movement in a valueless world,
Choosing it, till both hurler and the hurled,
One moves as well, always toward, toward."

Thom Gunn

Posted by: ivan at May 9, 2004 12:29 AM

You've written it just as it was. Our Victorian house was ecru, not green, but otherwise your recollections of Mr. Gunn are "right on, man." His courses were the most delightful times of my college education and remain the most important to defining myself. I'm no poet, nor am I male or gay, but his legacy lives within me, my private, personal share of Erato.

Posted by: Sharon Hauser at May 9, 2004 10:45 AM

A beautiful remembrance, and fitting in its elegance. You wasted neither your time nor his in that long ago class, now, did you?

Posted by: Paul Dana at May 19, 2004 1:02 AM

I really enjoyed your recollection. I'm an Afrikaans poet, living in South Africa. I came across him poems in the Eighties & was immediately struck with their eloquence & style. I got an address for him from Faber & Faber and started corresponding with him. When I visited New York in 1987 there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to meet him. So we arranged it & I flew to San Francisco, staying in the Grand Central hotel. The next morning, I had a quick coffee at a coffee shop nearby, & when I returned to the hotel he was waiting in the lobby - leather jacket, earring, short greying hair. I was a bit overwhelmed finally meeting him, but he put me at ease & we went for breakfast somewhere in Castro street. Afterwards, we took a streetcar to his house on Cole street where he showed me around. I especially liked the big colourful billboard type art he collected. He showed me his study, the desk where he writes (the two walls forming the corner covered with art prints, porno pics, poems by favourite authors, drawings etc - almost like a snapshot of his mind). Too soon it was time for me to head back to the airport. He gave me a couple of his books (signed them also) & sent me on my way.
We kept in touch for a while, but my life took a couple of unexpected turns & I lost touch with him. I always bought his books, read the reviews etc, & in my mind I composed many letters that I never sent. Now I regret not having done so, not telling him how much his last two books meant to me, how experimenting with drugs opened up Moly to me in a new way.

I found out about his death in the worst possible way. I was surfing the net one afternoon, & typed in 'thom gunn new poem' to see whether there's anything new by him in a magazine or newspaper maybe, & when I scanned the results my eye fell on a link saying 'Thom Gunn died...". It was as if someone punched me in the stomach. I thought, this must be some other Thom Gunn, but in my heart I new it wasn't. I reread his collected poems & am overwhelmed not only by the volume & accomplishment, but by the sense of loss it evokes - the loss of him.

Reading his poems, however, I realise that he was prepared for that final adventure, had been for a long time, & I find solace in that. I want to dig out his letters & read them again soon.

Ps. Anybody know where I can get hold of 'Touch', the one volume I don't have?

Posted by: Johann de Lange at May 20, 2004 5:35 AM